An Open Letter to My Teachers

Day six of the recovery challenge asks you to write a letter to someone who has harmed you or has made you feel bad. I could write a number of letters, but then again an equal number of people could write them to me. Besides, such letters are not always meant to be seen by the people they’re about, so the blog isn’t always the right place to post them. I will therefore not write a letter to one specific person, but to a group of people. Originally, I wanted to write a letter to my elementary and secondary school bullies. Then I realized that my bullies were kids just like me, and they didn’t know better. I therefore will address the letter to both the bullies and their enablers, mostly teachers. After all, bullying by kids who don’t know better is bad, but worse than that is the enabling of it by adults who should know better..

Dear bullies, dear teachers,

You, bullies, are too numerous to address individually. Most likely, none of you will ever even see this letter. It is an open letter, published on the Internet, not so much to shame you – which is why I won’t name you -, but to make you aware of the effects you had on me and to process these effects for myself.

Enabling teachers, you, too, are too numerous to address individually. Some of you will remember that I addressed you by name on an old version of an old blog. Rest assured, when I transferred the blog to a new site in 2007, I changed your names. I will not violate your privacy like this again. This letter is not intended to shame you personally, but again to make you aware of the effects of bullying and the inherent disability discrimination in your behaviors. If you ever teach a disabled student who is being bullied again, I hope you’ll remember my advice. Again, this is an open letter, so even if it doesn’t reach you, I hope it will reach teachers of disabled students anywhere.

Bullies, you, too, will most likely remember my name. For some of you, I was the only girl in your sixth grade class. For others, the odd, blind girl in your eighth grade grammar school class. I was the “bitch” to one of you, the “dwarf” to another.

In sixth grade, the only reason even the teachers could give for you bullying me, was that I was too smart. Yes, I was too smart, which is why YOU bullied me. Teachers, this is inverted reasoning. Bullies choose whoever they see as the easiest target. Making a buly victim a less easy target, may help that particular victim (although it is more likely to make them feel bad about themselves), but it will not end the bullying.

In eighth grade, your reasons were more valid, if reasons for bullying can ever be valid. Hint to the enabling teachers: NO THEY CAN’T. I didn’t take care of my personal hygiene. In your words, I stunk. I reacted with blunt comments when you wanted to help me and I didn’t want to be helped. The teachers favored me and some gave me higher grades than I deserved. I understand you had a hard time communicating these annoyances, but instead of going to my tutor, you chose to bully me until the tutor decided to go up to you. He organized a class for you in which you could spew your criticism of me. You eagerly did so, and I was told that if I just took care of my personal hygiene, stopped being blunt and stopped being favored by the teachers, the bullying would stop. It did, for a while.

A quick note on favoritism: giving a disabled student extra time on tests or an aide or whatever when their disability warrants it, is not favoring them. Giving a student a higher grade than they deserve, is. Make sure the school has documentation on the student’s needs: an IEP or 504 in the U.S., a statement of special educational needs in the UK, and I have no clue what it’s called in my own country because such thigns didn’t exist when I was in school; they hopefully do now. Such a document will detail the student’s accommodations and services. Non-disabled students should not be made aware of the peculiarities of the disabled student’s documentation; just say they have a statement/IEP/whatever and that it’s not the non-disabled students’ business to decide on the fairness of accommodations.

At this point I want to address the teachers again. Whenever I was troubled, as I was often throughout elementary and secondary school, you attempted to change me. Seven years into psychiatric treatment, I understand all about personal responsibility, and I understand that if I wanted to make friends, I had to be socially adept. I realize now that I didn’t have the social skills to be a good friend or even to avoid being an easy target for the bullies. That, still, doesn’t make me responsible for the bullying I endured.

You also need to know your limitations. You are not equipped to diagnose (or rule out) autism or to offer social skills training to an autistic student. You are not counselors, you are teachers. I understand you were the only ones to be reached when students saw me in despair, but please know your limits.

Now I want to talk about the effects bullying and its enabling had on me. Bullies, you made me feel like one piece of crap. Then again, enabling teachers, you made it worse by making me feel responsible. On said old blog, I wrote a post about a teacher who had kids vote an autistica student out of the classroom. I know you did your best to keep me in. I realize you, teachers, did what you thought was best given the tools and knowledge you had at the time. This is why I want to tell you to know your boundaries.‘I was undiagnosed with respect to autism at the time, but some of you knew I suspected it and actively worked to get this thought out of my head. This is beyond your professional responsibilities as a teacher.

I want to make it clear that all of you, my elementary and certainly secondary school teachers thought you were doing what was best for me. I know that the school system as it was in the 1990s and ealry 2000s wasn’t good for a multiply-disabled student. I can only hope it’s better now. I just want to say that with this letter, I’ve hopefully made you aware of some pitfalls of teaching a disabled student and how to avoid them.

Lastly, I want to thank my secondary school tutor (if you ever read this, you’ll know I mean you) in particular for making sure the principal didn’t single me out for a celebration of prestigious school achievement for being able to educate a blind student. Thanks for that.

4 thoughts on “An Open Letter to My Teachers

  1. Astrid, I have read your blog before but never commented. I very much need to comment now, though, because I am so angry on your behalf and on the behalf of my own son. Those children, who bully, in highschool, and in life scare me so much. I want to reach out to them but I don’t really know how. I mean, I try to write and advocate but I feel like maybe you have better and more awesome ideas, having had more years to think about it all than I have. My son is only five. His challenges are new, mostly, and I’d love your thoughts on more about what to say. And also, you totally rock for writing this. Brave.

    1. Hi Kristi, thanks for your supportive comment. Did you mean to ask what you as a parent can do to help other children be friendlier towards your disabled child? I will post some ideas on this soon, but honestly my key point was that the disabled child is not at fault for being bullied.

  2. Astrid, I am so sorry your high school experience was so horrific. As a former teacher, I apologize on behalf of the profession. Thank you for raising awareness by adding this post to the DifferentDream.com Tuesday link up.

  3. Thank you for speaking up about what you went through Astrid! I think you are very brave. It is not the fault of the disabled, or the kind, or the sensitive, or the trusting. Unfortunately, there are not many brave people who are willing to stand up for someone who is being bullied. I get criticized all the time for overprotecting my kids. Maybe I do but after hearing your experience, I feel like I’m doing the right thing. Thank you for sharing this!

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